Pretty Good Privacy (PGP)

Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) is a popular program used to encrypt and decrypt e-mail over the Internet.

Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) is a popular program used to encrypt and decrypt e-mail over the Internet. It can also be used to send an encrypted digital signature that lets the receiver verify the sender's identity and know that the message was not changed en route. Available both as freeware and in a low-cost commercial version, PGP is the most widely used privacy-ensuring program by individuals and is also used by many corporations. Developed by Philip R. Zimmermann in 1991, PGP has become a de facto standard for e-mail security. PGP can also be used to encrypt files being stored so that they are unreadable by other users or intruders.

How It Works

PGP uses a variation of the public key system. In this system, each user has a publicly known encryption key and a private key known only to that user. You encrypt a message you send to someone else using their public key. When they receive it, they decrypt it using their private key. Since encrypting an entire message can be time-consuming, PGP uses a faster encryption algorithm to encrypt the message and then uses the public key to encrypt the shorter key that was used to encrypt the entire message. Both the encrypted message and the short key are sent to the receiver who first uses the receiver's private key to decrypt the short key and then uses that key to decrypt the message.

PGP comes in two public key versions - Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) and Diffie-Hellman. The RSA version, for which PGP must pay a license fee to RSA, uses the IDEA algorithm to generate a short key for the entire message and RSA to encrypt the short key. The Diffie-Hellman version uses the CAST algorithm for the short key to encrypt the message and the Diffie-Hellman algorithm to encrypt the short key.

For sending digital signatures, PGP uses an efficient algorithm that generates a hash (or mathematical summary) from the user's name and other signature information. This hash code is then encrypted with the sender's private key. The receiver uses the sender's public key to decrypt the hash code. If it matches the hash code sent as the digital signature for the message, then the receiver is sure that the message has arrived securely from the stated sender. PGP's RSA version uses the MD5 algorithm to generate the hash code. PGP's Diffie-Hellman version uses the SHA-1 algorithm to generate the hash code.

To use PGP, you download or purchase it and install it on your computer system. Typically, it contains a user interface that works with your customary e-mail program. You may also need to register the public key that your PGP program gives you with a PGP public-key server so that people you exchange messages with will be able to find your public key.

Where Can You Use PGP?

Originally, the U.S. government restricted the exportation of PGP technology. Today, however, PGP encrypted e-mail can be exchanged with users outside the U.S if you have the correct versions of PGP at both ends. Unlike most other encryption products, the international version is just as secure as the domestic version.

There are several versions of PGP in use. Add-ons can be purchased that allow backwards compatibility for newer RSA versions with older versions. However, the Diffie-Hellman and RSA versions of PGP do not work with each other since they use different algorithms.

This was first published in September 2005

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